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We have been reviewing convenience foods here at Dr. Gourmet for a few years. The idea began because my patients talked about eating Lean Cuisine meals. I will admit that at the time I hadn't had a frozen meal in longer than I could remember. Mind you, I love to cook and a lot of folks don't. Likewise, I work to make time to cook because I know that it's the way to living well and living longer.
O.K., that's me but you may be different. You may not like to cook every day or may not feel you have the time. So I took this to heart and we began testing a lot of different convenience foods. Most of these are frozen meals like Lean Cuisine. We've now tasted and reviewed over a hundred such meals and some are pretty darn good and others pretty darn terrible.
There's a lot out there on the market and our reviews should help you. We choose only meals that are widely available, by national brands, so there might be others you can choose that we haven't gotten to or are only available in your part of the country. Likewise, fresh meals like those available in groceries aren't appropriate for our reviews because these are generally only made locally.
We do have criteria for choosing such meals, and if you are going to eat convenience foods it's really important that that you look for those that are better for you. Looking at the Nutrition Facts label on frozen meals is especially important.
As with all foods, checking the number of servings and serving size is the first step. Even though that little package may seem to serve only one, many are actually for two or more servings. This is a major issue, especially because a lot of these foods have too much salt. It's hard to find meals with less than 500 mg per serving, and we try hard to find meals that are no more than 650 mg. This is less difficult with the brands that are marketed as being healthier - Lean Cuisine, Healthy Choice, Weight Watchers and the like. Even with those, check carefully for both the salt content and also other nutrients like fat and fiber.
As with most foods, the lower the fat and the higher the fiber the better. We target less than 15 grams of total fat whenever possible, but few meals have more than 4 grams of fiber.
Lastly, we review a broad range of foods and many of them have unusual ingredients in them - you know, things like polysorbate 60 as well as artificial flavors and colors. While we do review them we try to comment on the quality of ingredients. If you are making the choice, it's probably a good idea to choose meals that only have ingredients you recognize. If you don't know what it is, it might be best to leave the product on the shelf.
Convenience foods can be a part of your day to day healthy diet with just a bit of care, planning and investigation before you buy.
Eat well, eat healthy, enjoy life!
Timothy S. Harlan, M.D.
Last updated: January 19, 2009